The Welsh Government on Brexit

Yesterday, Carwyn Jones and Leanne Wood made a joint appearance in London to launch the Welsh Government’s white paper on Brexit, ‘Securing Wales’ Future’.

Rather unorthodoxly, the white paper was developed jointly by the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru. Presumably, the Liberal Democrat Minister of Education would have had at least some input into the document as well. The document is 63 pages long and has been praised as being somewhat longer than the UK Government’s vision for Brexit.

The document has prefaces by both the First Minister and the Leader of Plaid Cymru. Carwyn echoes Theresa May’s message from last week’s announcement, that while the UK and Wales will be leaving the European Union the country will very much remain a European country and will want to actively engage with its European neighbours. Leanne Wood takes a stronger position in her forward, expressing Plaid Cymru’s desire to remain a member of several European mechanisms including the single market, EEA and EFTA, and to avoid tariff barriers (presumably through continued membership of the Customs Union).

The document breaks the Welsh Government’s position down into six key areas:

Single Market – The Welsh economy is heavily integrated with the EU and two-thirds of identifiable Welsh exports are sent to the EU. The Welsh Government wants continued access to the single market for goods, services and capital (possibly through the EFTA or EEA).

Migration – The rights of EU migrants in Wales should be guaranteed and a reciprocal agreement should be made for Welsh and UK citizens in the EU. In the future, migration from the EU should be linked to employment (with exceptions for students and those who can sustain their selves). However, Leanne Wood was reported to have said that “free movement was not a problem”, which has added some confusion over the government’s actual position.

Finance and Investment – Wales receives £680 million in EU funding each year. This funding is important to Wales to drive economic growth and jobs. The Welsh Government argue, over the long-term, EU funding should be replaced with a revision to the Welsh block grant. The Welsh Government also want to continue to participate in some EU programmes such as Horizon 2020, ERASMUS+, Creative Europe and the Wales-Ireland Programme and want the UK to continue being a partner in the European Investment Bank.

Constitution and Devolution – Devolved policy areas such as agriculture, fisheries, regional development and the environment will be exercised without an EU framework in the future. Some powers returned from the EU will be retained by Westminster (or Whitehall). It is possible that some policy decisions made by the UK Government may have a negative impact on Wales and there should be a strengthened intergovernmental mechanism for the resolution of disputes with independent arbitration where no agreement can be made.

Social and Environmental Protections and Values – Clean air, water and beaches are underpinned by EU legislation. Additional EU working rights (e.g. the Working Time Directive) resulted in safer working environments and EU laws on product safety and consumer protections helped protect the public. The Welsh Government believe that over the short-term the Great Repeal Bill will consolidate these existing laws into British law but there needs to be vigilance over the long-term that these protections are not lost.

Transitional Arrangements – It is likely that an agreement on the future relationship between the UK and EU will not be achieved within the Article 50 timescale. The Welsh Government thinks that the UK Government should come to a transitional agreement with the EU for the period following the formal exit from the EU to avoid a sudden ‘cliff edge’ departure. The document repeats the First Minister’s previous statement that leaving the EU does not mean leaving Europe.

Looking towards the future, Wales’ negotiating position is weak because the Welsh electorate voted in favour of leaving the European Union. I think that many Westminster-based Tories have also taken this as an indication that the Welsh people believe that London knows best, regardless of what the reality may be. We also have a Welsh Secretary who cares more about the feelings of his English colleagues than putting up a fight for Wales (just take a look at the Wales Bill and Air Passenger Duty – he can’t even stand up for his own constituents). It is also true to say that the voices of the Scottish and Northern Irish are heard louder and clearer by the UK Government.

Because of the Labour-Plaid agreement on this issue, it also means that Leanne Wood will be on the defensive when it comes to Welsh Government policy towards Brexit. It is Plaid Cymru’s policy now as well. This means that Brexit-opportunist Andrew RT Davies will now be the effective leader of the opposition to the Welsh Government on Brexit – although he will have the task of defending the UK Government when things go wrong as well. No doubt UKIP AMs will have a lot to say as well.

Overall, the white paper is a sensible Welsh contribution towards Brexit. Some of the demands are quite achievable, particularly those on Finance and Investment. However, I’m sure some will be non-starters for Theresa May’s Brexit team.

Primary Education in Llangennech

It was with a sense of trepidation that I entered the chamber in county hall last Wednesday. There were several items on the agenda. However, the important decision that day would be whether we county councillors would agree to discontinue the dual-stream Llangennech Infant and Junior Schools and replace with them with a Welsh medium community primary school. This would in effect end dual-stream education in Llangennech (where parents can choose whether their children receive either English-medium or Welsh-medium education) in favour of Welsh-medium only.

The first important thing to remember is that the names English-medium and Welsh-medium are extremely misleading. Both streams teach the English and Welsh language, although the degree and quality vary considerably from school to school. Those in Welsh-medium education receive excellent tuition in both English and Welsh languages. There are concerns that English-medium education is not achieving the outcomes expected in the standard of Welsh. It is believed that children learn Welsh better when they are immersed in a Welsh language environment at an early age. I believe this to be true. Welsh-medium education is the only truly bilingual system of education we have in Wales.

The second thing to remember is that the Welsh language is in decline across Wales. I truly believe that ‘Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon’, that a nation without a language is a nation without a heart. We must take action to improve and extend the Welsh language skills of Wales’ population and the most obvious way to do this is through the education system. I commend the Welsh Government’s resolve though the WESPs (Welsh in Education Strategic Plans) and the 1 Million Welsh Speakers policy. As a county councillor, I feel that Carmarthenshire County Council should do everything within its power to support the policy.

The third consideration is whether pupils from English speaking homes suffer because of Welsh-medium education. This was at the heart of the concerns raised by some parents and residents in Llangennech. It was also among some of the reasonable concerns raised by some of my collegues on the Labour benches in county hall. I know that some of my colleagues have had bad experiences with Welsh-medium education. They did not receive the support they needed as either pupils, parents or in some cases both. I understand and sympathise with them. However, schools and education authorities should do their utmost to make sure that all students and parents have all the tailored support they need to navigate the education system. To make Welsh-language education a scapegoat for a pupil’s difficulties in school does nothing to solve the core issues for that pupil. Particularly when bilingual and multilingual education is standard practice across most of the world.

Fourthly, campaigners were saying that 95% of the population of Llangennech objected to the proposals. Lies, damed lies and statistics. This simply was not true. However, it is clear that the council has failed to sell these proposals to many within the community. The consultation very badly managed overall. Officials should learn lessons from this experience as they move other schools along the language continuum in the future.

Finally, whenever I approach a decision I try and imagine myself in the situation of those who will be affected. I was actually educated through the Welsh-medium system of education (attending Ysgol Gymraeg Brynsierfel and Ysgol Gyfun y Strade in Llanelli). I benefitted hugely from bilingual education. My basic ability to learn new languages is very weak and I believe that if I had not attended a Welsh-medium primary school I would not have the fluency that I have today in Welsh. Not only that, but I feel a huge sense of pride in being fluent in the native language of the country that I love. I know that the future pupils at Llangennech will benefit from these changes and will feel the same pride that I do today.

These are the reasons why I supported the county council’s proposal to change primary education in Llangennech to Welsh-medium only. I only hope that the council will continue to pursue this policy throughout the county.

A need to do things

I have a compulsive need to achieve things. By 12pm every day I want to feel like I have made a list of achievements, no matter how small or trivial. Maybe I can work through my inbox, study a chapter for university or spend an hour at the gym. I have this unrefutable compulsion to do things.

If I manage to make it through till lunchtime without doing anything I feel terrible. I spiral into a well of guilt and a feeling of disappointment with myself.

Today I managed to get something done. I had a long-overdue haircut. My hair is now of a reasonable length for a man. My pre-lunch goal is achieved and I can not conquer the rest of the day with the knowledge that I am not a lazy-good-for-nothing so-and-so.

Dublin Awaits

So here I am sat at my kitchen table. I occasionally glance at the oven digital clock face while I wait for dinner to cook. This despite knowing that I have set an alarm on my phone to indicate the readiness of said food. I know that in slightly over one week I will by flying to Dublin with Ana and my sister.

I have never travelled to Ireland and it will be the second new country that I will have travelled to this year. I have an idea in my mind what to expect of Dublin. A jovial city. I am not sure if this is what we will find there. I have no real plans for our three-night visit except my sister’s insistence on visiting the Guinness Factory (surely she means brewery?).

I am excited to be visiting a new place, a new country. I don’t expect Ireland to be very different to my own, only minor but noticeable cultural differences. I am looking forward to exploring the street, parks, pubs, museums and other attractions of a capital of a culture that punches far above its relative size.

As the time of departure draws nearer I look forward to making the most to a flying visit to a place that has fascinated me for years.

Wanderlust

There are times that I feel an overwhelming wanderlust. It’s not just a desire to jump on a plane for a weekend city break. It’s a calling to pack everything in – my job, my public duties, sell my home, throw away almost all my commitments.

I know I am not alone. My partner Ana sometimes suddenly declares that we should go and live in Paris for three months next summer, or that we should simply travel for the rest of our lives. The human brain is fascinating. One moment you are struggling with your ordinary life. The next you are backpacking through the Himalayas.

At the beginning of this year we decided we would travel. We somehow agreed that we would visit five foreign countries this year. Life and money get in our way. But we decided that we really would travel so be just bought tickets, booked a hotel and spent Valentines week in Paris. We always knew that we would be visiting Bucharest in June for Ana’s sister’s wedding. We also managed to spend a few days in London at the beginning of May and will be returning soon. We also spent a week in Llandudno (North Wales) while I was at a conference. I did not spend much time at the conference.

We are planning trips to Ireland, Spain (most likely Barcelona) and Italy or Germany this year. Looking ahead, we have plans to visit a lot of places in the future. Amsterdam, Venice, New York, Spain (lots of places) and Japan are high up on our list. South America is also a long-term goal.

What I love most about travelling is that its inspiring. When you stay at home for a long time you start to get too regimented in the peculiarities of your community. Travelling not only changes the scenery and exposes you to new cultures. It allows your imagination to be set free and to inject a new creativity into your thinking.

Lunchtime Walk

Earlier today I decided to go for a walk through Llanelli town centre. It was warm and the sun was shining and I wasn’t going to spend another lunch hour in front of my computer at work.

People are always complaining about the ‘state’ of the town centre. It’s hard to argue with them. However, their complaints are not properly thought through. I have worked at several different points in my career close to Llanelli town centre and have always struggled to find something nice to eat for lunch. There are a few excellent cafes if you have time to sit for lunch. But if you’re in a hurry it’s tough to find a quick snack unless you go to the same two or three places every day.

When you walk around you get a casual sense of decline, much like the majority of Welsh town centres. But in Llanelli you can also spot the potential. You look at the buildings, you look and the empty spaces. You think that the empty store would be a great location for a boutique or a gift shop. The empty street a ripe location for a snack bar. Plenty of people work near and visit the town centre. All you need is somewhere for people to spend their money.

However, you can see the successes as well. The Eastgate development’s restaurants and cafes have customers. People occupy the street, drinking coffee, waiting for their bus. On the other side of town, at Spring Gardens, a temporary fair is attracting families during the half-term week.

What we need in Llanelli is a little imagination, some new ideas and private investment. Business is by definition risky, but only through individuals investing their time and money on their ideas will places like Llanelli flourish again. Let’s not forget, it is the individual imagination of the industrialists and co-operators that built the town in the first place.

When the leader of the council tells you that we have a 10 year, 20 year, 50 year or 999 year plan to save the town centre, he is selling you a false truth. There are things that the council can do – like providing free car parking, which would level the playing field with out of town developments with unlimited space. They council could do more to beautify the street or change planning policy and enforce it by encouraging more people to live in and near the centre. However, the council cannot open a business. Neither would we want the council to start opening businesses. Only businesspeople,  those with faith in their ideas, can rescue the day.